Untangling Schenkerian Analysis

Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) was a Viennese pianist, teacher, and prolific writer about music. In his editions of Beethoven’s music, Schenker pioneered the practice of critical editing based on the composer’s manuscript (rather than the first published edition) as a primary source. Today he is best known his analytical monographs and essays on individual compositions that he deemed to be masterworks as well as for his theoretical writings on subjects including ornamentation, harmony, and counterpoint. Over the course of these writings, he gradually developed an analytical method now known as “Schenkerian analysis” that attempts to depict visually the layers of structure in a musical work, such that musical surface is understood as an ornamented version of a simpler, less detailed version of the piece. Schenker adapted the terms “background,” “middleground,” and “foreground” from visual art to describe the relationship of these musical layers. A Schenkerian “graph,” often described by Schenker as a “picture,” generally shows several layers vertically aligned to facilitate comparison. 

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Schenker’s approach, which he intended to help performers refine their intuitions and revive past performance traditions, was championed by such influential performers as the violinist Carl Flesch and especially the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who funded some of Schenker’s publications. Although Schenker’s mature analytical work was not well received in German-speaking countries (partly due to his Jewish heritage), it has been profoundly influential in a North American diaspora. Recent scholarship has traced the influence of Schenkerian ideas at the Institute for Musical Art (Juilliard’s predecessor institution) as early as 1925. During the Nazi era, many of Schenker’s students fled Europe for the United States, including Felix Salzer, who taught at the David Mannes Music School (now Mannes College the New School for Music), where he was eventually a colleague of and co-author with Juilliard faculty member Carl Schachter.


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